Happy Birthday, Sam!

If you walk down Kildare Street in the center of Dublin, past the National Library, and take a right turn into South Leinster Street, and look then at the old building on the opposite side of the street which backs onto the playing fields of Trinity College, you will see the sign. It is written in now-fading letters high on the gable end of the building. It says simply: “Finn’s Hotel.” This was what Richard Ellmann called “the slightly exalted rooming house” where Nora Barnacle worked. Close to here, on June 10, 1904, she locked eyes with the young James Joyce. They stopped to talk, the two young strangers, and they arranged to meet four days later on a corner of Merrion Square, outside the house once owned by Sir William and Lady Wilde, where their son Oscar was raised, the site of many parties. When Nora failed to turn up, Joyce wrote to her the next day, “I hear nothing but your voice… I wish I felt your head over my shoulder.” The day afterward they met, and James Joyce made that day into Bloomsday, the day of all days for Irish literature, as he made the name of the hotel into the working title of his last book, Finnegans Wake.

The journey between Nora’s hotel and Wilde’s house is along a single short street called Clare Street. Here at Number 6, Samuel Beckett’s father ran his quantity surveying business. On his father’s death in 1933, Samuel Beckett’s brother took over the business while Beckett himself took the attic room in Clare Street. Here, it was agreed, he would do his writing, and even give language lessons. It was, more than anything, a way of escaping the mausoleum into which his mother had converted the family home; it allowed him to spend his day wandering in the city or staring at a blank sheet of paper. The implications of being halfway between Wilde’s house and Nora Barnacle’s hotel would not have been lost on him. Like Wilde, he belonged to that group of Protestant geniuses who emerged as Protestant power was dwindling and dying in southern Ireland. Among the others were W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Lady Gregory, Bram Stoker, John Millington Synge, and Sean O’Casey. All of them came from different rungs of the Protestant social ladder; all of them developed a deeply personal idiom; it was their style which set them apart from the world. Beckett’s early system had elements of Wilde’s interest in finding an accepted set of truths and then turning them sharply inside out, and elements also of Joyce’s concern with language and consciousness. His stepping out into Clare Street was enough to remind him of his destiny.

In the years when Beckett was tentatively creating his early work, three events stand out which helped to mold and shape his genius. The first took place in London, as Beckett was undergoing psychotherapy. In the autumn of 1935, as he was writing Murphy, he…

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